03 August 2022 | Story Nontombi Velelo | Photo André Damons
Nontombi Velelo
Nontombi Velelo is a PhD student, Social Science Programme Director, and Sociology Lecturer at the University of the Free State (UFS).

Opinion article by Nontombi Velelo, PhD student; Social Science Programme Director and Sociology Lecturer at the University of the Free State.

History reminds us of the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956, calling for the free movement of black women in South African urban areas. This act illustrated the sisterhood bond that the early feminist thinkers aspired to, since women from different backgrounds and races participated in the march. The women who participated in the protest challenged the systematic oppressive and racist rules of the apartheid regime. As one reflects on this phenomenon, one recognises solidarity among the women of 1956, which dispels the perception that women cannot unite for a common cause. It also creates an illusion that South African men and women are comrades in the struggle since they fought against colonialism and apartheid and, to some extent, share similar experiences regarding violation of human rights. Therefore, the most logical action is to have a common understanding of systematic oppression, violation, and exclusion.

Post-apartheid, 28 years into democracy, South African women still find themselves existing within similar conditions from the past. Most people invested efforts in unpacking women's experiences as victims of gender-based violence (GBV), the causes of GBV, and possible remedies for GBV. Undoubtedly, GBV has presented itself as a social ill and demonstrates the coercive power dynamics that exist within society. President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared gender-based violence as the South African pandemic, yet the government has undertaken no active efforts to respond rather than react to the phenomenon. Instead, the state has paid lip service to what needs to be done to ensure the safety of women in the country. Between October and December 2021, more than 900 South African women were murdered; these are reported cases, but there are many unreported cases related to GBV and femicide. Approximately 51% of South African women have experienced some form of violence. The call for the free movement of women in the country is far from being answered.

The issue of GBV has distracted us from recognising other existing problems experienced by women in South Africa – unemployment being one of them. Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) reported that 42,1% of South African households are headed by women, 39,6% of urban households are headed by women, and 47,7% of rural households are also headed by women. The issue is that 36,4% of these women are unemployed and living under the harsh realities of extreme poverty – remembering that some are single parents taking care of their dependent family members. We should not forget the problem of absent biological fathers who are neither emotionally nor financially present in their children's lives. They are responsible for ensuring that the basic needs of their children and dependent family members are addressed. We often assume that social grants should help relieve the pressures of unemployment and childcare; however, the reality is that it cannot even reduce half of SASSA beneficiaries' needs due to the escalating prices of commodities. Those fortunate enough to find employment are confronted with the constant battle of pursuing their career ambitions and family lives. Women excelling in their careers are often perceived as having failed in their family responsibilities (being good mothers and wives). The bread-and-butter issues have become a thorny subject for women who are unemployed or pursuing their careers.

The other challenge is the issue of land restitution and distribution and its role in addressing socio-economic inequalities and challenges. Though the land restitution and distribution debates advocate equal land distribution among men and women, few women have land ownership. Approximately 13% of South African women have private ownership of farmland. However, things have not changed for women living in rural areas since the discourse around land reform. Women in rural areas are subjected to the sexist oppression of traditional leaders, who do not recognise the importance of land ownership by women. In some contexts, it is perceived that women do not have any form of rights or privilege to landownership. Social norms do not encourage us to recognise women as landowners – land ownership is often recognised under marriage. If the husband passes on, the land will belong to his family to avoid losing it if a woman remarries. Due to patrilineal inheritance custom, a boy child will often be the one to inherit the land rather than a girl child. Therefore, some traditional norms do not recognise women as entitled to land ownership.

Women are vulnerable to climate change resulting from their poor socio-economic background. Women in rural areas represent a higher percentage of poor communities and depend for their livelihood on the natural resources threatened by climate change. Having a lack of access to natural resources puts women in stressful situations. In most cases, it is the responsibility of women in rural areas to ensure that their dependent family members have access to clean drinking water. When there is no access to water, for example, women would have to find means to get water and, in some cases, even travel long distances to find water. Also, they are the ones expected to gather wood to ensure that their children are fed and have drinking water. In most communities, women are not active participants in decision-making. We have internalised the notion that men are more rational leaders than women; therefore, we tend not to acknowledge women's voices in decision-making.

Commemorating Women's Month

9 August celebrates the monumental achievement of the women of 1956 who fought against sexist and racial segregation. Those women understood their enemy and united in dealing with the enemy. The present-day women are confronted with intersecting challenges. I believe South Africa should not commemorate Women's Month, since women still do not have freedom and still experience the violation of their human rights. We need active solutions, like the 1959 women, to mitigate our challenges. There is nothing to celebrate about being a woman in South Africa, since womanhood is subjected to abuse, violation, and exclusion. Without minimising the efforts and contributions of those who came before us, we should mourn the social injustices directed at, and the traumatic experiences of, South African women. The notion of imbokodo subjected women to systematic dominance, disrespect, violation, and exploitation. The lives of South African women are devalued; they continue to experience trauma imposed by the system of patriarchy.

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